Society

CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES?

Scientists are warning that we may only have 100 years
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AS WE CAN SEE with the Trump phenomenon, it's dangerous for society to have such a large population group that chooses to remain uninformed about the world as it is. We have the 1 in 4 Americans who believeaaNazi Trump the Sun orbits around the Earth.  And then the 42% who believe our planet and all its creatures were created less than 10,000 years ago, never mind the 36% who believe that our apparently increasing rate and severity of natural disasters are evidence of the biblical Apocalypse, rejecting all evidence of the anthropogenicism in climate change.  "To appreciate the risks [of a population clueless about basic civics and history]... it’s important to understand where American ignorance comes from."

All that choosing to not evaluate evidence that challenges hard-held beliefs leads to political decisions which will allow what we can choose to change into becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Basically, more than 37% of Americans are completely lost

Confirmation bias and belief perseverance interactively play a key role in this, and if challenged it can stimulate the same system in the brain that reacts to a  bear in the woods coming at you, or for a world leader to wake up each morning with an obsessive compulsion to angrily broadcast his contempt for all evidence that invalidates his view... and worse, threaten to unleash “... fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before."  For purposes of this article we'll informally call that specific clear and present danger to the world, Factor #45


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In a classic sense, this problem is a Gordian knot for us to solve, in the most personal way imaginable, so we can safely keep pace with a universe in the process of confirmation biasbeing ever faster demystified. And there's the rub.


We are wired to find order in randomness and chaos. We look at clouds and see sheep. We look at stock price charts and detect patterns. We read our horoscope and think "yes, that totally applies to me!"

In evolutionary terms, this can be a useful feature. After all, when it comes to making decisions, we're helpless without a theory, a way to make sense of the situation that we're in. Powerlessness is a deeply upsetting and stressful condition. So when a theory, even a weak one, presents itself amid an explanatory vacuum, we instinctively seize hold and hang on for dear life.

Once we have a theory in our grasp, we begin to see everything through its lens. Information that otherwise seem ambiguous, or even contradictory to that theory, is understood within its framework. And so just by holding a belief we tend to gradually strengthen our conviction that it is true, a tendency that psychologists dub "confirmation bias.  --Psychology Today

The problem can all too easily rise to the bizarre, even danger of sheepling, of conforming with group behavior without seeking information

**

Isaac Asimov about drink

Author and scientist, Isaac Asimov, captured the problem through a personal experience

I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science...

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal...

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong...

When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree? Let's take an example.

In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. It was not just a matter of "That's how it looks," because the earth does not look flat. It looks chaotically bumpy, with hills, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and so on.

Of course there are plains where, over limited areas, the earth's surface does look fairly flat. One of those plains is in the Tigris-Euphrates area, where the first historical civilization (one with writing) developed, that of the Sumerians.

Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days...

Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long...  [and he goes on to explain the slow process getting the geometry right so that we can live in a world that took us to the moon, and then brings in how difficult it is for many to digest evolutionary theory].

If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.

***



The first thing to perhaps ask is just who is it that is making these choices?

human brain sizeAnthropologists have found evidence about special moments in our evolutionary history that resulted in increased brain size, and they coincide with major climate changes, which required additional problem solving skills to survive. We're right in the middle of a major climate change much worse than we thought even two years ago. And the additional pressure to adapt includes the most serious  extinction event in some 65 million years. That pressure is one our species has never experienced.

And never mind the many other M.A.D. challenges in the world threatening us.

It's pressures like these which theoretically push us to adapt, and our brain is primed to do that... but it does require over 20 years of the right stuff of nurture, socialization and education for that brain, the Self (see below), to exist and rationally interact with the real world. 

What has resulted from this relatively very recent evolution of the brain is the capacity -- it needs to be nurtured forth -- to inhibit subconscious, impulse-driven responses to emotionally charged stimulation, by very quickly (at the nanosecond scale) consciously thinking through a behavioral response, accessing relevant information stored in memory.  So we'd better have the right information in memory when making decisions that can be life-death, such as in the voting booth or about to push the nuclear war button.  Also, evidence discovered only this year has revealed a unique neural network which can, if functionally nurtured, feedback-reward high-level, prosocial moral reasoning even when the frontostriatal reward system is at rest  If that evidence is taken seriously by society, there might not be any horizon within humanity's grasp which cannot be safely explored towards our success.

Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s... adolescent brain development research is already shaping public policy debates about when individuals should be considered mature for policy purposes...

In the last decade, a growing body of longitudinal neuroimaging research has demonstrated that adolescence is a period of continued brain growth and change, challenging longstanding assumptions that the brain was largely finished maturing by puberty [1–3]. The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life....

Myelin, a sheath of fatty cell material wrapped around neuronal axons, acts as “insulation” for neural connections. This allows nerve impulses to travel throughout the brain more quickly and efficiently and facilitates increased integration of brain activity [17]. Although myelin cannot be measured directly, it is inferred from volumes of cerebral white matter [18]. Evidence suggests that, in the prefrontal cortex, this does not occur until the early 20s or later.
--US National Institutes of Health

According to the preponderance of the evidence to date, the self  -- that who which makes conscious choices -- is a construct of the neocortex's synaptic architecture. And nothing in it is ever written in stone. It's a dynamic neuroplastic system, constantly stimulated to sprout new connections, while reinforcing those that are latent and adaptively functional in the percolation of a conscious self capable of higher order thinking and decision making.  Synaptic pruning, withdrawal of connections no longer serving a function, is also a part of this plasticity.

think thefrefore i am

For decades neuroscientific dogma held that the brain was immutable, unchangeable and static. New research in the field of neuroscience has shown this core belief to be untrue, and revealed that the brain is in fact a dynamic organ that changes almost constantly...

What does that mean for us? It means that cultivation theory, which suggests that repeated exposure to social messages shapes belief systems, not only has a demonstrable biological correlate, but that changing our perception of those social messages can not only change our thinking, but change the way we synaptically process the message -- permanently.

It means that social constructionism and the social construction of reality is not only a two-way street, but a genuine collaboration between self and society. We literally do create our reality, and we can change it, just as it can change us. More to the point, we really, literally and demonstrably can change as people...

It means that collaborative talk therapy, by changing perceptions and perspective, can change the brain, which changes thinking and, by association, behavior - for real.  --The Science of Change

The most critical period of brain development occurs of course during childhood.  Therefore it goes without saying just how important for civilization it is to prioritize how primary caregivers -- parents and teachers -- behave with, and teach, this most precious resource to our survival.   Factor #45 selected Betsy DeVos as Secretary of the US Department of Education.  "At the rightmost edge of the Christian conservative movement, there are those who dream of turning the United States into a Christian republic subject to “biblical laws.... [C]onsider the president-elect’s first move on public education. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the nation, says that he was Mr. Trump’s first pick for secretary of education. Liberty University teaches creationism...

[From Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools, NYT]

"When Mr. Falwell declined, President-elect Trump offered the cabinet position to Betsy DeVos... DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right. In 1983, her father, Edgar Prince, who made his money in the auto parts business, contributed to the creation of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as extremist because of its anti-L.G.B.T. language...

Ms. DeVos is a chip off the old block. At a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists, she singled out education reform as a way to advance God’s kingdom. In an interview, she and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., said that school choice would lead to greater kingdom gain.”

In light of all this, "CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES"?

Yes.  "That's the amazing thing about biology. If you treat it [your brain] kindly it will heal [functionally adapt]." --Professor of animal neurosurgery, Noel Fitzpatrick.

But the degree and scale of human suffering in the world, especially for the sake of our children and theirs, is directly proportionate to how we, here and now, kindly wake up and actively engage in a unified front against what for all intents and purposes can truly be called a Clear and Present Danger

"Confounds the Science"
Parody of Simon and Garfunkel's, "Sound of Silence".  Art Garfunkel played by Don Caron; Paul Simon played by Linda Gower.

***

Challenge yourself with this fun exercize.  It's a comic.

believe big

 ***

For further reading

Stephen Hawking: We have LESS than 100 YEARS to save the human race
We are at a point in history where we are "trapped" by our own advances, with humanity increasingly at risk from man-made threats but without technology sophisticated enough to escape from Earth in the event of a cataclysm.

Humans will be extinct in 100 years says eminent scientist
Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change.

Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050
Capitalism has generated massive wealth for some, but it’s devastated the planet and has failed to improve human well-being at scale.  Species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate over the previous 65 million years... Human activities are behind the extinction crisis. Commercial agriculture, timber extraction, and infrastructure development are causing habitat loss and our reliance on fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change.  Public corporations are responding to consumer demand and pressure from Wall Street. Professors Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg published Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations last fall, arguing that businesses are locked in a cycle of exploiting the world's resources in ever more creative ways.

Why did Neanderthals go extinct?
Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were widespread across Europe and Western Asia for a long time, starting about 400,000 years ago. But things began to change when populations of Homo sapiens (earlier members of our own species) migrated from Africa to Europe at about 45,000 years ago. Five thousand years later not a single Neanderthal remained. What happened? To find out, Smithsonian Insider posed a seemingly simple question to Briana Pobiner, paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?
In the last half-billion years, life on Earth has been nearly wiped out five times—by such things as climate change, an intense ice age, volcanoes, and that space rock that smashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, obliterating the dinosaurs and a bunch of other species. These events are known as the Big Five mass extinctions, and all signs suggest we are now on the precipice of a sixth.

New thinking: the evolution of human cognition
Humans are animals that specialize in thinking and knowing, and our extraordinary cognitive abilities have transformed every aspect of our lives. In contrast to our chimpanzee cousins and Stone Age ancestors, we are complex political, economic, scientific and artistic creatures, living in a vast range of habitats, many of which are our own creation. Research on the evolution of human cognition asks what types of thinking make us such peculiar animals, and how they have been generated by evolutionary processes. New research in this field looks deeper into the evolutionary history of human cognition, and adopts a more multi-disciplinary approach than earlier ‘Evolutionary Psychology’.

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness
Scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment -- that flash in time when you suddenly know the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with previous research, provide compelling evidence that this moment -- this feeling of having decided -- pierces consciousness when information being collected by the brain reaches a critical level. Importantly, this study offers new hope that the biological foundations of consciousness may well be within our grasp.

Allocating structure to function: the strong links between neuroplasticity and natural selection
A central question in brain evolution is how species-typical behaviors, and the neural function-structure mappings supporting them, can be acquired and inherited. Advocates of brain modularity, in its different incarnations across scientific subfields, argue that natural selection must target domain-dedicated, separately modifiable neural subsystems, resulting in genetically-specified functional modules. In such modular systems, specification of neuron number and functional connectivity are necessarily linked. Mounting evidence, however, from allometric, developmental, comparative, systems-physiological, neuroimaging and neurological studies suggests that brain elements are used and reused in multiple functional systems. This variable allocation can be seen in short-term neuromodulation, in neuroplasticity over the lifespan and in response to damage. We argue that the same processes are evident in brain evolution. Natural selection must preserve behavioral functions that may co-locate in variable amounts with other functions. In genetics, the uses and problems of pleiotropy, the re-use of genes in multiple networks have been much discussed, but this issue has been sidestepped in neural systems by the invocation of modules. Here we highlight the interaction between evolutionary and developmental mechanisms to produce distributed and overlapping functional architectures in the brain. These adaptive mechanisms must be robust to perturbations that might disrupt critical information processing and action selection, but must also recognize useful new sources of information arising from internal genetic or environmental variability, when those appear. These contrasting properties of “robustness” and “evolvability” have been discussed for the basic organization of body plan and fundamental cell physiology. Here we extend them to the evolution and development, “evo-devo,” of brain structure.

Livelihood resilience in the face of climate change
The resilience concept requires greater attention to human livelihoods if it is to address the limits to adaptation strategies and the development needs of the planet's poorest and most vulnerable people. Although the concept of resilience is increasingly informing research and policy, its transfer from ecological theory to social systems leads to weak engagement with normative, social and political dimensions of climate change adaptation. A livelihood perspective helps to strengthen resilience thinking by placing greater emphasis on human needs and their agency, empowerment and human rights, and considering adaptive livelihood systems in the context of wider transformational changes.

High moral reasoning associated with increased activity in the human brain's reward system
Individuals who have a high level of moral reasoning show increased activity in the brain's frontostriatal reward system, both during periods of rest and while performing a sequential risk taking and decision making task according to a new study.

Can human greed and denial ever end? The climate crisis as a transformational opportunity
It was the rigors and challenges of survival through the last Ice Age that drove the evolution of those new cognitive abilities such as foresight and the ability to plan, innovation, enhanced communication skills and enhanced co-operation, which transformed our distant ancestors into fully modern humans...These qualities, and the evolution of self-aware consciousness that underpins them, are the very things that make humanity distinctive from all other living things. In this light, the historically-recent rise of right-wing ideologies which attempt to justify neoliberalism and consumerism (read: selfishness and greed) as a preferred basis for society – and which are so strongly characterised by the use of denial as a means to ignore their self-evident contradictions - are truly regressive ideologies since they represent a resurgence of our most primitive selfish evolutionary traits, and undermine the more recent tendencies towards co-operation and altruism that are actually what made humanity so successful.

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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